Monday, November 10, 2003

'Ragtime' mixes myriad elements

Directors deliver emotional production

By Joseph McDonough
Enquirer contributor

Ragtime - the ambitious Terrence McNally (book), University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music alum Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) musical is a difficult challenge to produce at any level.

With three separate plots inter-twining two dozen fictional and historical characters from E.L. Doctorow's turn of the last century novel, Ragtime is a moving but epic three-hour journey.

Fortunately, Cincinnati Music Theatre has brought in co-directors Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen. The husband-and-wife team has delivered a thoughtful, well-executed Ragtime that is a fully satisfying production.

Ragtime follows the lives of a wealthy WASP family in New Rochelle, N.Y., a Harlem piano player, and a Jewish immigrant to New York City whose stories gradually coalesce as they encounter racism, the American Dream, capitalism, the early labor movement and eventually each other in this broad canvas of life a hundred years ago.

Bryll (who is also responsible for the smart, often humorous choreography) and Cohen elicit solid, focused performances from most of their nonprofessional cast of 39.

This is particularly so with all of their lead characters who find the soul and power in Flaherty and Ahrens' musical score and McNally's script that doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of our racial heritage.

Pamela K. Day anchors the production as Mother, the wealthy wife who opens her heart and home to an abandoned African-American baby she finds in her garden.

In her numbers "What Kind of Woman" and "Back to Before" she questions her racial isolation and seeks to understand the world beyond her safe New Rochelle confines.

Equally impressive is Kenneth D. Early as Coalhouse Walker, the ragtime pianist who will not back down in the face of injustice and mistreatment.

His climactic "Make Them Hear You" is a powerful conclusion to his bittersweet struggle that escalates to a point of no return.

Also notable are Marcie Brooks as economic reformer Emma Goldman, Wesley Barnfield as Booker T. Washington, Joy R. Rolland as Walker's love Sarah, Rick Kramer as stoic Father, Brian Anderson as restless Younger Brother, and Daniel P. Cohen as Tateh, the immigrant who accidentally stumbles upon motion pictures.

Dick Wesp's musical direction is effective both on stage and in the orchestra pit.

Dan Dermody has created well-conceived utilitarian set pieces that quickly move on and drop down to evoke many locales.

A quibble - the sound levels on opening night were sometimes overpowering and could use adjustment.

Ragtime, through Saturday, Cincinnati Music Theatre, Aronoff Center, (513) 241-7469.

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